Debate on reform of the Lords

The House had a lengthy debate yesterday on a motion to take note of the case for reform of the House of Lords.  There were sixty-seven speakers and overwhelmingly they favoured reforming the House in order to strengthen it in carrying out its functions but were opposed to an elected second chamber, which would destroy the current House.   Despite some (unsurprising) element of repetition and some self-congratulatory speeches, the debate was a good one and the mood of the House very clear.

I was the thirty-third speaker.  In the time available – there was an advisory speaking limit of seven minutes – I addressed the stilts on which the argument for an elected House was based and sought to demonstrate why they could not carry the weight accorded them.  I challenged the claim that having a second chamber was the ‘settled’ view of the Commons, that an elected chamber was the democratic option, that it alone conferred legitimacy, and that the relationship between the two Houses would remain as they are in the event of both Houses being elected.   In replying, the minister, Lord McNally, didn’t engage with the first three and his only attempt to touch upon the last – claiming the Parliament Act 1911 was enacted in order to assert the supremacy of the Commons – was risible, since he omitted to mention that it was enacted in order to assert the supremacy of an elected House over an unelected one!

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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9 Responses to Debate on reform of the Lords

  1. Croft says:

    I don’t normally cross post but as I put my reply to this point in Lord Tyler’s Sandwich post it may get lost but it rather mirrors yours here

    Having just scanned the debate some of the logic is circular in the extreme.

    “The 2008 White Paper maintains that primacy does not rest solely or mainly on the fact that the Commons is an elected Chamber while the House of Lords is not.I agree that the subordinate relationship of the Second Chamber is underpinned by the Parliament Acts, including supply, and the fact that it is the Commons on which a Government rely for confidence”

    The Parliament Acts were a consequence of one house being elected, as was supply/taxes being an historic commons primacy and was central to the relatively modern notion of confidence in the commons removing a government. No part of the primacy of the commons was established because one chamber was sought or constitutionally necessitated to have the chief role. Everything was created from the fact of election and it really boggles the mind that MPs and peers keep trying to pretend otherwise.

    Sadly so many peers are ex-MPs and are vicariously protecting their old stomping ground which muddies this whole debate.

  2. Lord Norton says:

    Croft: I saw your comment in response to Lord Tyler and agree completely. It is difficult to comprehend the logic employed. As you say, it derives from the fact of election. I have variously quoted the Earl of Shaftesbury during debate on the 1867 Reform Bill: ‘So long as the other House of Parliament was elected upon a restricted principle, I can understand that it would submit to a check from a House such as this. But in the presence of this great democratic wave… it passes my comprehension to understand how an hereditary House like this can hold its own…. It would be said “The people must govern, and not a set of hereditary peers never chosen by the people”.’ Once the other House is chosen by the people, the relationship changes and the whole basis for the Parliament Acts disappears.

    • Croft says:

      It’s often a problem of whether a peer might or might not post on a top then suddenly like buses… 🙂

      Out of interest, to what extent do you think – or know – ministers’ actually believe their own argument or are they just trying to put up the best argument they can think of however weak it seems to us.

      I have noted, in other debates, that some ministers have used the formula of indicating that they are reading a civil service reply which I take to be a way of indicating that perhaps it is not wholly the reply they might have wished to give.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: I think the best answer I can give is to say that it depends on the minister.

        I take your point about reading out a script as a way of distancing oneself from the content, something done on one famous occasion by Alan Clark.

      • Croft says:

        Whilst I remember I caught the mini-lecture/Q&A on various coalitions on BBCparl a day or so ago.

        1) I don’t know who does the sound/mikes but it was very difficult to hear some of the questions from the audience without turning up the volume so far you were deafened when the properly miked panel replied!

        2) One of the speakers explained that the Labour party refused to serve under Chamberlain but that they had no other conditions. This is exactly as I have read it in many sources. Why then do a number of present and former MPs still maintain that the LP demanded Churchill?

      • ladytizzy says:

        Croft, I watched the programme too, and it crossed my mind how lucky the students at Hull are…

        PS agree about the mic’s

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: It was also a problem at times for the audience. As you may have noticed, one or two questioners thought that as their voices were loud enough without technical assistance. They ploughed on without waiting for the microphone to reach them (or, when it did, to ignore it). On your second point, I have seen this claimed as well. I am not sure of the genesis of the claim that Labour wanted Halifax.

        ladytizzy: You are too kind. I am amazed by the number of people who appear to have seen the broadcast. One of my students said ‘I saw you on television the other day’ and I had no idea what he was talking about. I presume now that it was that broadcast on the Parliament channel, though my next-door neighbour has just e-mailed and said in passing that he saw me on Sky the other day – apparently covering me in the Lords debating reform. Fame.

        Incidentally, I don’t know if the cameras picked it up, but both Stuart Ball and I shook our heads rather vigorously when it was suggested that the name of the 1922 Committe derived its name from the meeting of Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club in 1922 which led to the downfall of the Lloyd George coalition. As I have previously pointed out, the name derives from the fact that it was formed (in 1923) by some MPs first elected in 1922.

    • Croft says:

      The mini lectures from academics are some of the best things on bbcparl though they have an exasperating habit of not showing the Q&A afterwards. As the speeches are short précis of their full lecture/book form they may be familiar to some listeners so it’s the Q&As that often have the really interesting things in them.

  3. Carl.H says:

    The workers (The Commons) stating they want the staff of Quality Control (The Lords) to be changed in favour of them is simply absurd.

    Elections favour politicians this changes our whole system of Parliament, it is not reform, it is simply a means to deny the people of this Country quality control, proper scrutiny, on that which the commons propose as law.

    Governments do not always follow their manifesto and even that does not contain all they might propose. Without a system to check with some impartiality, with common sense and wisdom it is a catastrosphe for this nation.

    Any type of election would favour the main Parties who are setup and funded for it. This would rule out any free spirit and impartial mind. The electorate being fickle would either vote the way of Government had they just got in or against after a period of time. The periods being mentioned that the Lords would sit for is longer than the period of Government, therefore the next Government would be unhappy at the makeup of the House of Lords. The result would be more reform.

    What the Commons is proposing is not reform but revolution, it is a complete change of the system that in my mind would destroy the stability and the concept of fairness in this Nation.

    The Lords has gone astray because successive Governments have been allowed to fill it with it`s lackeys. What is needed is a fair, impartial Appointments Committee and a lot less Party controls. You should not be on a Jury if you are part of the defence or prosecution.

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